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Municipal votes test Chile’s parties

SANTIAGO — Millions of Chileans voted Sunday for the first time in their lives in nationwide municipal elections that could set the stage for next year’s presidential race.

The results will be a sign of where the heart of the electorate lies just weeks before the campaign for Chile’s presidency formally begins. Any would-be candidates have to give up their political posts a year before the Nov. 17, 2013, vote.

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The nation has been roiled by more than a year of mass protests over education and environmental policies that brought millions of young demonstrators into the streets, and only about a third of voters approve of the job that conservative President Sebastian Pinera has done since taking office in 2010.

But polls say there is even less support for remnants of the center-left Concertation coalition that governed Chile for 20 years after democracy was restored in 1990, ending the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Many new voters are part of a younger generation whose huge street protests fed hopes that expanding the electorate would lead to profound changes in Chile’s political establishment. But that appears less likely now, pollsters said.

After many tumultuous months when activists took over streets, schools, and public buildings, choking on tear gas but failing to get Congress to adopt their demands, their faith in the democratic process has waned.

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